Answers to this question were at the heart of a recently published report from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges titled "Envisioning the future of veterinary medical education."
The report reflects the compilation of ideas and suggestions provided by more than 95 invited participants during a series of meetings held in 2006. The participants were from the United States and Canada and represented various aspects of the veterinary profession, not just academia.
Throughout the study, organizers encouraged participants to seek perspectives from the future rather than extending thinking from the present, a method called foresight analysis. In the end, a number of recommendations on how veterinary medical education must prepare veterinarians for the future were made.
"The veterinary medical colleges represent the future of the profession. We need to make plans today that will enable us to prepare students to meet the challenges of tomorrow," said Dr. Lance Perryman, AAVMC president and dean of the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
"The problem is that nobody can predict the future with absolute certainty or know exactly what veterinarians need to be doing 50 years from now," Dr. Perryman said. "Foresight analysis is a well-developed technique that allows us to prepare for several different possible future scenarios. This is the best way to position the veterinary medical profession to respond to society's needs in the 21st century."
Dr. Lawrence E. Heider, AAVMC executive director, said it was due time for this report, considering that the last report of this type—the Pew National Veterinary Education Program study—was published in 1988.
"We needed another look at what's going on in the profession," he said.
One of the most valuable aspects of having this report available, Dr. Heider said, is to assist the AAVMC in advocating for increased federal support of veterinary medical education, particularly to help colleges expand enrollment.
"It's very important for us in this process to have documents that show good thought and what we believe may happen in the future," Dr. Heider said.
He added that the report will be additionally valuable if veterinary colleges use it as a basis for long-range planning or even their own foresight analysis.
First published in a special issue of the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, the report will be distributed by the AAVMC to veterinary groups throughout the country and to veterinary colleges around the world.
"We expect there will be widespread discussion and, hopefully, agreement with the recommendations in the report," Dr. Perryman said.
Key recommendations from the report are as follows:
- The AAVMC must achieve consensus on two key points: acceptance of the concept of an expanded veterinary medical educational program, leading to a DVM/VMD degree, through provision of areas of professional focus, perhaps identified as centers of emphasis, in North American colleges of veterinary medicine; and acceptance that veterinary licensure will not cover all areas of professional focus, but rather will lead to public assurance of competency in a selected area of veterinary medicine.
- The AAVMC should develop a national strategic plan for implementation of the concept, which each college would use as guidance to develop a specific strategic plan.
- The AAVMC and the colleges should develop a plan to reduce student debt, at least in areas of the profession where there is a shortage of veterinarians.
- Colleges must develop opportunities for continuing education for veterinarians seeking to change careers and licensure in a new area of professional focus.
- Colleges should capitalize on new technology to provide distance education.
- The AAVMC should pursue, with the National Institutes of Health, the establishment of an Institute of Comparative Medicine.
- The licensing boards through the American Association of Veterinary State Boards and the state or provincial veterinary associations should address the modification of licensing for graduate veterinarians to allow licensing for a "professional focus."
- Accreditation of colleges of veterinary medicine should be limited to the requirements to teach the core program plus the areas of professional focus offered at that college.
- It is recommended that the AAVMC, the AVMA, and the Canadian VMA should come to consensus on major issues for the profession to ensure that there is a unified voice that speaks for the profession to prevent conflicting messages to the public.
- The AAVMC could consider monitoring ongoing changes in society, in political systems, in the environment, and in disease, to assess any potential impacts on the future direction and education of the profession, which may require the addition or alteration of areas of professional focus within the curriculum.